The use of hepatitis C viral RNA levels in liver tissue to distinguish rejection from recurrent hepatitis C



Persistence of hepatitis C virus (HCV) after orthotopic liver transplantation is almost universal in HCV-infected patients. Histological examination of liver biopsy specimens can be variable in distinguishing between recurrent hepatitis C and acute cellular rejection. The purpose of this study is to determine whether hepatic HCV RNA levels can be used to distinguish rejection from recurrent HCV by determining whether hepatic HCV RNA levels correlate with histological characteristics and clinical course. Seventy-two biopsy specimens were evaluated from 36 liver transplant recipients with HCV and elevated liver-related enzyme levels. Based on histological findings and clinical response to therapy, patients were defined as belonging to 1 of 5 groups: (1) definite rejection, (2) probable rejection, (3) indeterminate findings, (4) probable HCV, and (5) definite HCV. Hepatic HCV RNA was quantified using the Amplicor Monitor assay (Roche Diagnostic Systems Inc, Branchburg, NJ). There was a difference across groups in HCV RNA levels (P = .046). The median HCV RNA level was 10,695 copies/mg of tissue DNA in the definite-HCV group compared with 1,024 copies/mg of tissue DNA in the definite-rejection group. Using pairwise comparisons, significant differences were found between definite HCV and definite rejection, probable HCV and definite rejection, probable HCV and probable rejection, and probable HCV and indeterminate. Our findings support the following conclusions. (1) In liver transplant recipients, hepatic HCV RNA levels are statistically greater in patients with recurrent HCV than rejection, although there is considerable overlap between groups. (2) Patients with low HCV RNA levels were unlikely to have recurrent HCV. (3) Patients with minimal and indeterminate findings on biopsy (group 3) had low HCV RNA levels.